We Wash Our Own Laundry

Recently I watched the 1973 film Serpico, part of the Turner Movie Classics run-up to the Oscars. For those who consider 1973 to be prehistory, the film stars Al Pacino as Frank Serpico, a New York City policeman who exposes widespread corruption in the N.Y.P.D. It’s based on a true story.

Ever sensitive to dialog—particularly dialog that involves laundry—I noted the following exchange. It takes place when Serpico tells Captain McClain that he has reported the police corruption to an official agency outside the police department:

McClain: Holy Mother of God! Frank, we wash our own laundry around here! You could be brought up on charges!

Serpico: We do not wash our own laundry! It just gets dirtier!

When I searched for the phrase “we wash our own laundry,” Google came up with more than 3,700 hits. Not exactly the 994,000 hits of “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” from The Godfather (another prehistoric film starring Al Pacino), but Serpico isn’t shown on TV quite as often either.

“We wash our own laundry” has come to be a euphemism for taking care of ourselves, taking responsibility, handling our own problems. And by extension it is used to deter potential whistle-blowers (like the real Frank Serpico) from the temptation to “put your lips together and blow” as it were. (1.1 million Google hits for that one. Look it up.)

My question is: Do we wash our own laundry?

And my answer—because I do tend to answer my own questions from time to time—is: Not often.

It doesn’t seem that things have changed much since ancient times (1973). Institutional corruption is probably more widespread and more insidious now. Certainly the stakes are higher. The cops in Serpico’s day could be bought for $300 a pop, if the film is to be believed. Something tells me it takes more now, although the former governor of Connecticut was indicted for taking bribes that included a $3,600 hot tub, so who knows?

Whistle-blowers are still persecuted and corruption still exists at all levels of government and in all fields of endeavor. Tolerance for dirty laundry is remarkably high, even among those people who claim to be cleaning things up. They’re like the chambermaid who makes your bed with pristine, lavender-scented sheets, then blows her nose on your pillowcase.

So, who is washing the laundry? That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s being sent out.

In my building of 100 apartments, I’d estimate that only 20 percent of the residents wash their own laundry in the laundry room. The rest prefer to take it to the service laundry down the block or have their maids wash it for them. They don’t mind perfect strangers handling their soiled undies and holey socks.

I wish more of us did wash our own laundry, solve our own problems, fix our own mistakes. Send it out and it might not get dirtier. Then again, when you entrust your laundry to strangers, you’re never really sure how clean it is.

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